Historians Somehow Missed It, But Juniper Seems To Have Been Nearly As Important As Hops In Beer

RealClear Staff


     Upon further examination of farmhouse ales, many used juniper to make their mashes. This may be surprising to some—especially with all the experts in the ale community—as an entire section of suds history was skipped.

[Source: HerbCo.com]

The Oxford Companion To Beer avails the shrub being a big component in Nordic ales—e.g., Sahti. It’s also commonly known that juniper’s a component of gin. In more elaborate writings on traditional-brewing additives, Karl-Ernst Behre cited [15] juniper being a popular ingredient in Estonia. Nils von Hofsten’s book [18] about herbs in beer touched on the Swedes using juniper, but there wasn’t much else to be discovered—a pattern of juniper pulses in publications.

However, when digging deeper, juniper’s widely used in Norwegian, farmhouse brewing—Gotland, Sahti [19], Estonia and Latvia too. All these countries area all about juniper! It’s appears as a prime ingredient among these areas and in the Baltics—possibly a shared tradition. But beer-centric ethnologists contributed quite the contrary—e.g. Odd Nordland (a prime authoritarian of Norwegian farmhouse ales):

“It is evident that juniper, as part of the strainer and as a basis of the extract [infusion], is an innovation in Norway. Juniper extract has been commonly accepted in fairly large areas, but the use of juniper in the strainer has not been adopted to the same extent. This is no more than one might have expected, as a juniper decoction had to be prepared in any case during brewing, to be used for washing and cleaning. It was already at hand in fact. But using juniper twigs in the strainer was an entirely different matter - this was not acceptable, as it was considered of great importance that the strainer was arranged according to ancient tradition. [1]

It appears Nordland disagreed with the spotty-yet-concrete evidence, as juniper was not consistently used in the strainer rather the infusion—i.e., an innovation—therefore, people were thriftier about the strainer. While that’s a weird example used as a basis for an opposition, he provided nothing more on the matter. Further, it cannot be ignored, as Nordland committed at least 10 years to the topic.

[Juniper bush, Fårö, Sweden | Source: Garshol.priv.no]

Ale-expert Anders Salosmonsson suggests advancements in farming equipment gave rise to using juniper. Historically, farmers used long straw to strain the mash; however, as time went on, straw became short and less utilitarian, so they leaped to juniper in lieu of nature’s string. Unexpectedly, he adds that outside Gotland, it’s highly uncommon to use juniper in the strainer—but he notes Norway and Finland doing the juniper jam on the same page. Salosmonsson goes further with juniper infusion outside the Swedish island being “as good as none [20]”—clearly a poorly structured sentence.

Regardless, thus far, there are two suds scholars sustaining the juniper method is recent. The proverbial third time’s a charm, Räsänen, was basically a wasted reference [19]—he had nothing to avail.

When immersing in earlier texts, it appeared Nordland and Solossmonson were actually onto something. There was no sign of juniper in Jacob Nicolai Wilse’s piece on brewing, which was published in Østfold, Norway, in 1779 [21]. To boot, Priest and scientist Hans Jacob Wille came up nil in his 1786 publication for Norway’s Telemark region [3]. Nordland’s writing points to J.A. Krogh’s work entailing juniper-based brewing in Nordfjord, Norway (1813), but that juniper occurrence isn’t early enough in history. It’s possible Wille and Wilse elected to leave it out altogether. That’s probably not the case, as both gave elaborate explanations.

It wasn’t until coming upon a number of Danish farmhouse-ale-survey responses (123, actually) that juniper came up—nothing relevant to brewing and/or distillation. Denmark proper scored zero points in the juniper-brewing department. Instances in England, Wales and Scotland came up empty as well—strictly Nordic and Baltic thus far. Bizarrely, how could this practice be seemingly pandemic yet simultaneously recent?

[Excerpt from Wilse's account | Circa 1779 | Source: Garshol.priv.no]

Deeper down the research hole, 95 percent of all Norwegian recipes call for juniper—but next to bleak in other areas. Could Renaissance Norway be the epicenter of the juniper movement that, along with Swedish Empire, swept across Finland and the Baltics? While that rationale supported the evidence, it was a little too fast of a transition in traditional brewing—the search continued.

According to the basic evidence gathered, juniper’s a commonly used herb in Nordic and Baltic farmhouse ales. The following table shows percentages based on the number of juniper account. Save Norway and Denmark, the biases vary in terms of account selection—i.e., don’t take those percentages too literally.

This solidified the Nordic-Baltic deduction/rationale—i.e., juniper’s the link to both types of beers. When sampling Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, and Estonian farmhouse ales, no hops were detected whatsoever—the juniper element was adamant. Odd Nordland cited juniper in chapter 11 (“Basic Flavors”), but hops is featured in chapter 17 (“Hops and Other Flavorings”) [1].

Norwegian-farmhouse-ale survey response NEG 13881 (Skodje, Møre og Romsdal) illustrated this clearly. When inquired on the types of herbs used in the beer, he explained hops was the only plant used. But he paused to recall two pages he’d just written entailing juniper being used for infusion and in the strainer. He made the addendum “but juniper was so to speak a fundamental flavour, along with malts and hops.”

Further proof was found in Helsinki—two sahtis. The Finlandia possessed an uneven sweetness, but as for the Lammin Sahti, its acrid, piercing juniper presence came through just as strong when juxtaposed with the sweet—a perfect balance. Estonia’s and Norway’s recipes are reflective of these characteristics.

[Juniper in a strainer | Aizpute, Latvia | Source: Garshol.priv.no]

There’s also Engelbret Mandt’s account of brewing in Telemark, Norway, in 1777 [2]. According to him, juniper was a norm for farmers’ homebrew—Wille must’ve omitted something in his writing [3]. Johan Molbech’s book provided uses of juniper in beer [4]—no specific location. Reinerus Broocman’s tellings of Estonian brewing cite juniper infusion as a common, brewing component as well [5]. (Clearly, juniper brewing is nothing new.)

Oddly, there are a few instances of stone brewing in Carinthia, Austria—juniper in every strainer [6] [7] [8]. How could these practices have gone from southern Sweden to Carinthia (450 km) in but a few decades?

When looking through some survey answers on Westphalia, Germany, farmhouse brewing, there were multiple accounts of juniper infusion for brewing-gear cleaning—one mention of boiling juniper branches in the wort. There was even another with mention of juniper berries in the beer [9]. The Germans were all about the juniper—the Bavarian purity law doesn’t forbid juniper [10]. Additionally, there are infinitely many sources with juniper being a component of gruit (medieval pre-hops beer spice mix)—no longer are the aforementioned instances to be thought of as rare instances.

Moving forward, when looking into Russian, farmhouse ale, there’s footage from Moscow of brewers using juniper infusion to clean their brewing gear—their “disinfectant. [11]” There was also an elderly lady in St. Petersburg who used juniper infusion in her brewing process [12]. According to Russian Wikipedia, juniper infusion’s widely used in cleaning wooden vessels—not unlike Norway [13]. These usages go hand in hand, as do using wormwood to clean brewing vessels and applying it to beer in Denmark.

[Juniper use: gray—in strainer only; white—juniper infusion; German examples—under the black dots. Juniper infusion for cleaning not shown. | Source: Garshol.priv.no]

When Norwegian people stopped using malts to make beer, they created “juniper beer” with sugar and juniper berries—Polish people are doing the same [14]. It’s possible they had done this previously. Also, a similar process was used in19th-century France—“genevrette,” which is made from juniper berries and barley [22].

It appears juniper has been used a lot across the majority of northern and Eastern Europe. While there’s conclusive proof dating back to the 18th century and onward, there’s the mystery of how its usage got around geographically in just a couple centuries. But there was Ove Arbo Høeg—the doyenne of Norwegian ethnobotany. In his book on juniper, he expounds on juniper’s post-Ice Age return to Norway.

“[Juniper] produces enormous amounts of pollen, so one might think pollen analysts would have a rich material for illuminating the immigration history of the species. Unfortunately juniper pollen belongs to the few species whose pollen is very thin-walled and unstable, just like aspen. It can be found in peat and mud samples, but it's known that preservation conditions determine how much of the original pollen remains in the sample. Therefore juniper pollen usually isn't included when the percentages of pollen by species are computed. [16]”

This new information puts an interesting spin on things, as most ancient beer is based on pollen analysis. However, Arbo Høeg seems to claim that if juniper was in the original process, pollen would not be in the picture today. That still doesn’t prove juniper was definitely there, rather the research probably missed it if it were present. Further, there’s also the obstacle of just because seeds, gale fruits and hops with grains were found, and archaeologists lead with that when examining beer production, juniper instances aren’t significant to them—some find might have been overlooked. In other words, archaeologists didn’t rule out juniper being ancient rather did not support it.

Patrick McGovern’s writing cites his analyzing two finds—both concluded as beer and contained juniper [17]. These findings lend and ultimately date back to 1400 BCE and 200 BCE.

To explain why juniper was not used in the “deviant” countries (the UK & Denmark), Arbo Høeg stated:

“In Denmark there are only a few regions in which juniper is widespread enough to play anything remotely like the role it has in Norwegian folklore. This applies even more so to Great Britain. [16]”

What can be ascertained is juniper wasn’t primarily used in places where it didn’t grow in vast amounts.

[Juniperus communis's geographical, natural range | Source: Wikipedia]

Another possible, juniper connection was found in Dutch jenever—a precursor to English gin. Because distillation wasn’t a widespread practice before sometime around the 12th century, jenever’s age has strict limit [23]. By then, farmhouse ale was a standard practice for at least two millennia. And it’s possible juniper in distillation spawned from earlier traditions of it being used in brewing.

In the last centuries, juniper has definitely been aggressively trending in farmhouse brewing—hops are the only other ingredient that compares. Of 489 instances, 455 went with hops, 287 used juniper and wormwood coming in last at 22. It could be said that juniper’s the “farmhouse hop.”

Juniper’s use is concrete for farmhouse brewing in Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Latvia and Finland. Also confirmed: high probability of it being used in Austria, Germany and Russia. Hints of it suggest France and Poland—not 100 percent. (There was an entire brewing component overlooked.) Heck, there’s a chance it was the primary herb in Stone Age brewing—hops may have surpassed it sometime after the Middle Ages reached its end. But that’s an entirely separate mystery to solve.


[1] Brewing and Beer Traditions in Norway, Odd Nordland, Universitetsforlaget, Oslo, 1969.
[2] Historisk beskrivelse over Øvre Tellemarken, Engelbret Michaelsen Resen Mandt, 1777, pg.107.
[3] Beskrivelse over Sillejords præstegiæld i øvre Tellemarken i Norge, Hans Jacob Wille, Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1786.
[4] Afhandling om Ølbrygningen i sin fulde Udstrækning, Johan Christian Molbech, Gyldendal, Copenhagen, 1796, pg.65.
[5] En fullständig swensk hushållsbok, Reinerus Broocman, Norrköping, 1736, pp: 17-19.
[6] Vom Steinbier, Raimund Dürnwirth, in Carinthia I., 95, Klagenfurt 1905, pp: 10-19, quoting a source from 1822.
[7] Traditional German Steinbier, Phil Rahn and Chuck Skypeck, Zymurgy 17, No. 4, 1994, quoting a source from 1906.
[8] Die Staatswirthschafts-chemie, als Leitfaden zum Behufe der öffentlichen Vorlesungen über diesen, Philipp Ritter von Holger, Wien, 1843.
[9] Volkskundliche Kommission für Westfalen, manuscripts M121 (undated but describes the period 1890-1910) and M313, dated 1956.
[10] Streit ums Bier in Bayern, Birgit Speckle, Waxmann, 2000. Strictly speaking the law in question is “Die bayrische Landesverordnung von 1616.”
[11] Verkhneenangskie pivovariy ili, Lyudmila Mikhailovna Kharyukova—amateur Youtube video.
[12] Бабушкин рассказ, Youtube video of unknown provenance. Interview with Nadezhda Prokofyevna of Senno, Leningrad Oblast, Russia.
[13] Можжевельник обыкновенный, Russian Wikipedia.
[14] Juniper Beer in Poland: The Story of the Revival of a Traditional Beverage, Madej et al, Journal of Ethnobiology, 34(1): 84-103, 2014. DOI 10.2993/0278-0771-34.1.84.
[15] The History of Beer Additives in Europe—A Review, Behre, K.-E. 1999. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany. 8:35-48.
[16] Eineren i norsk natur og tradisjon, Ove Arbo Høeg, Norsk Skogbruks Museum, Elverum, 1996. ISBN 8290660170.
[17] A Biomolecular Archaeological Approach to ‘Nordic grog,’ McGovern et al, Danish Journal of Archaeology, 2013.
[18] Pors och andra humleersättningar och ölkryddor i äldre tider, Nils von Hofsten, Volume 36 of Acta Academiae Regiae Gustavi Adolphi, Uppsala, 1960.
[19] Vom Halm zum Fass, Matti Räsänen, Kansatieteellinen arkisto, Helsinki, 1975.
[20] Gotlandsdricka, Anders Salomonsson, Skrifter utg. av Etnologiska sällskapet i Lund, Lund, 1979.
[21] Physisk, oeconomisk og statistisk Beskrivelse over Spydeberg Præstegield, Jacob Nicolai Wilse, Christiania, 1779.
[22] Arboretum Et Fruticetum Britannicum: Or The Trees and Shrubs of Britain, Volume 4, John Claudius Loudon, 1844, p2493.
[23] Distilled beverage, Wikipedia article.


Per Kornhall, Geir Ove Grønmo, Boak & Bailey, Merryn Dineley, Andreas Krennmair, and Partizan Bryanski for providing sources. Martynas Savickis for translating Russian material. Morten Rønningen, Stan Hieronymus and Merry Dineley provided feedback on the text.



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